Art fans, but especially longtime arts followers of Wichita, will want to view the show at the Fiber Studio this month, first to see what these two artists have been up to. Jennie Becker, a well-known ceramist, has more recently devoted her time to paintings, many of them with natural scenes. And Novelene Ross, the former curator of the Wichita Art Museum, has rediscovered her love of painting in her retirement, and has filled canvases with over-sized desserts, and sometimes, collage-style, with an iconic image from pop culture or a well known artwork—a Marilyn Monroe here, a Renoir snippet there. Somehow all fit within the show’s title, Desideratum: The Listing of Desires.
Their approaches to painting can seem almost unrelated, with Jennie’s meticulous, subdued visions of the natural world, and Novelene’s exuberant, over-the-top servings of extravagant desserts and their wonderfully kooky titles (try “Tutti-Frutti Milky Way Smoothie,” or “One Cool Sundae”). But if, living under the bluish-whitish skies of August, you are feeling color-deprived, you’ll be pleased to know that color is available in the paintings at this Commerce Street gallery.
When she retired from work as a curator at the Wichita Art Museum, Novelene had not been painting and had no plan to return to painting, a discipline she hadn’t pursued since college. But within a few years of leaving her work at WAM, she faced some major plan-changers (including caring for a husband diagnosed with both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s). She began to paint; she found her love of painting reawakened.
“And the more time I spent at home, kind of idle,” she says, “I thought, This is the time to go back to something that I truly loved. An inspiration for much of my early life. I began to take up painting again.”
She says she had been certain when young that she was going to be an artist; she began her undergraduate work at WSU in studio art.
But then she met the WSU art historian Mira Merriman, “this extremely charismatic art history teacher, who had just come to WSU and was fresh from her graduate studies at Columbia University in NY. And she was also charismatic, a modern woman, and she really inspired a great many of us in the art department at that time.
“ And I just felt Oh! I’m going to move into this field and combine my love of art with my love of literature and writing. So I switched majors. “
She continued in her art history studies, which eventually led to her position as WAM curator, but didn’t paint during all that time—not until she returned to it a few years into her retirement.
One day recently, she was talking to Fiber Studio co-owner Marilyn Grisham about the particulars of a planned show of her paintings at that Commerce Street gallery. They both liked the idea of a show pairing Novelene’s work with another artist’s. Novelene says she had in mind that someone working with three-dimensional art. Jennie Becker, a well-known and award-winning ceramicist and painter, came to mind. Jennie, a graduate of WSU and the Kansas City Art Institute, has taught, worked with children on art projects. She is now pursuing her own work and doing some commissions work—most notably, paintings awarded to the top golfers in the Flint Hills Golf Tournament.
Jennie is also a friend of Novelene’s; the two had worked together on the Kansas Arts Commission. Grisham urged her to call Jennie and ask her about work she had been doing lately.
Jennie told Novelene about her shift towards painting—though she hadn’t left ceramics behind entirely. Jennie says that when Novelene called, they discussed how their work—different in approach, color, themes, and focus—might come together in one show. Eventually, they determined that one common thread in their recent work was the sense of desires—some sensuous, some erotic, some familiar, some extravagant. The art show, then, became Desideratum, and it opened on July’s Final Friday. The show lives up to its grand title, but in some unexpected ways.
Although she says she has always intentionally worked with nature’s colors within her ceramics, Jennie has taken her focus on those colors to paintings. Her work at the Fiber Studio now reveals her study of authentic color, but also how light plays in nature. Orange-red blossoms stand tall within green plants so rich they can’t be overshadowed. Large graceful white birds tease each other amidst grasses while a low sun peeks through. You will see touches that are almost photographically exact in one area, or deliberately softened in another, a respect for perfection that still allows the artist’s vision free reign.
These paintings are the results of Jennie’s careful contemplation of nature. For instance, she says, in preparing to paint birds, she has studied the structure of bird wings and the way a bird’s feathers are layered.
Some of her ethereal dishes, vases, and plates are on display here, and still seem to defy gravity, or seem to be about ready to defy gravity. (I had visited the gallery with my son, an art student, who seemed to be, hours later, contemplating whether what he had just seen was even possible.)
Novelene likes to call Jennie’s paintings “Delicious!” And really, while most of Novelene’s paintings can barely contain the desserts within them (and she does have to paint the frames, too), they don’t necessarily trigger cravings for vast amounts of sugar. For all of their tributes to self-indulgence, the message isn’t guilt and suffering, but instead, something purely positive: Aren’t desserts wonderful to behold? Don’t they just change the day?
She brings the distinct styles and sometimes compositions of artists she loves—Gauguin, Matisse—in. They’re imitated with such delight, and added on to with such pleasure, that those seem to be a joyous dialogue between Novelene and the artists she has long admired.
While there are some interesting similarities—images of fruit appear in several series by Jennie, and meet up with Novelene’s “Blushing Bartlette” pear—the desires and temptations the artists depict are quite different from each other. Novelene’s paintings are hymns to instant gratification; Jennie’s place-settings draw you in with a quiet promise of a dining experience, a gathering with conversation as valued as fine food.
Asked later if she really, really loved desserts, Novelene confirmed that she did.
“I do. I have always been a dessert person. Throughout my youth, I was one of those people who could eat all she wanted and still stay thin. And as I have aged, the old body changed and its metabolism isn’t quite what it was. So nowadays, I have to really sort of pass by some of those banana splits that I used to dream about as a child,” she says with a huge laugh. “I was probably about seven, and I was always thinking that if I saved enough money, I could go to the corner Dairy Queen and get a banana split,” she says, laughing again. “So yes, there is definitely a woman who likes desserts within those paintings. “
There is no moral to their portrayals of desire, no judgment on humans. The work of both artists, at least when seen together in one space, would suggest that desire is much, much more complicated than “I want.”